pale, beyond the
The word pale dates to the 14th century and comes to us from the Latin palus, or stake, via French. The original English meaning was the same as in Latin, a stake, particularly one used to make a fence or border marker. You can still find this sense in the modern paling fence or palisade. From Wycliffe’s c.1382 translation of Ecclesiastes:
In þe wallis of it he is picching a pale.
(In the walls of it he is building a pale.)
From the literal sense of a fence or boundary line, the metaphorical sense of boundary or limit developed by the 15th century. From The Brut, or the Chronicles of England, c.1450:
Al þe cuntre þat was of þe Englisshe pale shuld come and bring...thaire goodes, and breke doun theire houses.
(All the country that was of the English pale should come and bring…their goods, and break down their houses.)
By the late 15th century, the word was also being used metaphorically to mean a domain or field of knowledge, influence, etc. From Caxton’s 1483 translation of Voragine’s The Golden Legende:
The abbote...and xxi monkes...went for to dwelle in deserte for to kepe more straytelye the professyon of theyr pale.
(The abbot…and 21 monks…went for to dwell in the desert for the keep more straightly the profession of their pale.)
The phrase beyond the pale makes its appearance in the 17th century. From John Harrington’s 1657 poem The History of Polindor and Flostella:
Both Dove-like roved forth beyond the pale To planted Myrtle-walk.
Over the centuries, various specific uses of pale to mean a specific region have been used. It has been used to refer to the regions of Ireland ruled by the English (16th century) or to the areas of Russia where Jews were permitted to settle (19th century). The phrase beyond the pale is not from any of these specific senses, but rather from the general one of boundary or limit.
(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd Edition)
Copyright 1997-2015, by David Wilton